Read Jane and the Canterbury Tale Online

Authors: Stephanie Barron

Tags: #Austeniana, #Female sleuth, #Historical fiction

Jane and the Canterbury Tale (10 page)

She was, at the time, but seventeen years old. She betrayed already, however, the regal bearing and dark beauty that would ripen, in time, to the depth of elegance I had admired so completely last evening. Fiske stared at her as she went down the dance, and determined to wrest her attentions from Moore.

Miss Thane was no heiress. Her father had been a gamester, well-known to Fiske from numerous encounters across the punting tables. She was exactly the sort of woman he ought
not
to pursue, much less marry—and so of course Fiske was compelled to achieve both. In wooing Adelaide Thane, he pitted himself against one of his oldest friends; George Moore was frank in admitting his object was to gain the lady’s hand, and the rivalry added spice to Fiske’s conquest. He set himself to be all that was charming; devoted himself to Miss Thane and her mother—who was wise enough to recognise a wastrel when she met one, having lived her life in a gamester’s pocket—and succeeded in encouraging that wary female to ride tyrant over her daughter, threatening the young lady with incarceration in her bedchamber and
bread-and-water for a week, if Adelaide chose to encourage such an ineligible
parti
.

Naturally, when Fiske was forced to flee London for relief from his creditors, the impressionable Miss Thane was ready to throw her future into his hands, and elope to Paris. The triumph was achieved one windy midnight, with a headlong flight to Dover and a perilous crossing prolonged by foul weather for some twenty hours, the prospective bride prostrate with seasickness for the duration.

“How long ago was this?” I interjected.

“The year Six, I believe,” Fanny replied, “for it was
then
that Mr. Moore took Aunt Harriot as his wife.”

“—Seeking consolation in the arms of propriety and baronet’s blood, having been worsted in the fight for Beauty.”

“I should not describe Aunt Harriot as
ill-favoured
, exactly,” Fanny said doubtfully, “tho’ it is certain she cannot shine when compared to Adelaide Fiske, and she possesses only a moderate understanding. Dear Mamma was still with us in the year Six—and tho’ I was
not
in request as a bridesmaid, I recollect taking some enjoyment in Aunt Harriot’s wedding. The only peculiar aspect of the ceremony was that the parish clerk at Wrotham, where Aunt was married, held Mr. Moore in such profound dislike that he ensured the funeral hymn was sung instead of the usual Nuptial Psalm.”

“Dear, dear. But to return to Curzon Fiske, and his harum-scarum bride—”

“Miss Thane would, as I have said, been seventeen at the time of her elopement to the Continent. I do not know how the couple contrived to live, tho’ it is
rumoured
that Mr. Fiske set up a gaming establishment in one of the lesser towns—Lyons, perhaps, or Liège—I am forever confusing the two—and that his beautiful young wife condescended to
deal faro
at one of the tables.”

Fanny’s intelligence from this point forward was a patch-work
of conjecture and fable. Nevertheless a vivid portrait emerged, of the two reckless citizens of the world making their glittering way across the Continent, regardless of Napoleon’s armies or the sudden falls of governments. They were spotted in Warsaw, as guests of a count; they took lodgings in St. Petersburg, and entertained the Tsar; they counted prelates in Rome and renegades in Sicily among their favoured intimates. Whenever they fled a locale the pair were sure to leave debts behind them; but curiously, Curzon Fiske seemed increasingly well-to-do. His wife went in jewels and the latest modes, which set off Adelaide’s figure and looks to perfection; his way of living was invariably of the first stare; and the baggage train that followed from province to province was a marvel of conspicuous display. By the time he returned to England—

“Returned?” I queried. “He faced down his creditors in this country, at last?”

“He must have done. Else Adelaide Fiske could not have been welcomed into the bosom of Chilham Castle by Old Mr. Wildman, as she undoubtedly was, three years after her headlong elopement.”

And so, in the year 1809, Curzon Fiske returned triumphant to the land of his rearing, with the object of devoting his accumulated wealth to the purchase of an estate in Kent. He had matured in his travels on the Continent, it was said, and thrown off his rackety ways in an effort to please his wife; his intention now was to re-establish his good name—and Adelaide’s—in Society. He descended upon Canterbury’s August race-meeting, and renewed acquaintance among the Plumptres and Finch-Hattons and Wildmans and Austens (they were not yet Knights); was much seen at Chilham Castle—and looked gravely into a number of houses said to be available for hire. One was leased at last at considerable expence, and staffed with servants from London; Mrs.
Fiske left her cards on visiting days, and formed one of the party at the local Assemblies; and the Fiskes were pronounced by all in Kent as a delightful couple, handsome in the extreme.

Little more than a twelvemonth passed away, however, before Curzon Fiske was off again—bound for India this time, and
without
the beautiful Adelaide.

“She had borne enough, I suppose, and wished to remain in her settled life,” I mused. “Mr. Fiske was obliged to flee his creditors, I presume?”

Fanny wrinkled her nose. “If it were
only
that … I
have heard
that tho’ he arrived in Kent with a considerable fortune—as much as thirty thousand pounds, it has been said—he squandered it in the old way, gambling being a sort of fever with him. But there was
some other reason
why he could not stay—why Mrs. Fiske, as she then was, remained behind—and the breath of scandal is never far from the story. I simply do not have an inkling as to what occurred on that dreadful night, Aunt, when he disappeared—”

“You make it sound like a horrid novel, my dear,” I retorted, amused.

“But it was! A sudden removal from the Fiskes’ home, and an abrupt arrival at Chilham, on the bitterest of January nights, when the wind and snow howled. The duns were at the Fiskes’ very door, they said, and the lease on their house in receivers’ hands. Of course Old Mr. Wildman took them in, tho’ James has said his father could not like it; and what should Curzon Fiske do, but set to drinking claret at a furious rate, and challenging all the gentlemen present to whist for pound points—when everyone knew he had barely a shilling to his name!”

“You were not of the party at Chilham on that occasion, I collect? What year would it have been—1810?”

“I was not present,” Fanny admitted in a grudging tone,
“and neither were my brothers, being as yet schoolboys at Winchester—but Jupiter Finch-Hatton knows what occurred, and it was from him I had some part of the story.”

“Very well. What does Jupiter say happened next?”

Fanny leaned towards me with a conspirator’s air. “The gentlemen—Jupiter and James and Mr. Plumptre, who was then but eighteen—agreed to play at whist with Curzon Fiske. Jupiter insists it was in an effort to bring some peace to Mrs. Fiske—Mrs. MacCallister, I should say—because her aspect was so wild and distraught, and her husband would do little to comfort her.”

“And?”

“And … I do not know what happened
next
,” Fanny admitted, with a flattened expression. “Only that Jupiter turned owlish and cagey, and quite
knowing
beyond what anyone might bear, so that I was out of reason cross, and lost all patience with him.”

I sighed.

“When a person who has been frank turns to evasions and hints,” Fanny insisted with asperity, “there is nothing to be done but to ignore him. Anything more would be to reward quite tiresome behaviour.”

“Undoubtedly. And yet you say that Curzon Fiske left Chilham. And without his wife.”

“There was some sort of row that night, I think,” Fanny offered with a pretty knitting of her brows, “all the gentlemen having dipped quite deep into the claret. Perhaps the quarrel regarded the winnings, or pound points.”

Or perhaps
, I thought,
it was to do with Adelaide. For certainly Curzon Fiske did not take her with him, when he fled England for the last time
.

“In any case,” Fanny persisted, “Mr. Fiske was gone from Chilham by morning, leaving a note he was bound for India; and Mrs. Fiske was abandoned to the charity of her cousins.”

“Poor woman! And she only one-and-twenty!”

Fanny shrugged. “She thoroughly enjoyed her career as an Adventuress well enough while it lasted, so one cannot entirely pity her—but I believe the Wildmans treated her with considerable kindness. They even repaired the broken relations that had obtained between Adelaide and her mother, so that Mrs. Fiske was received once more into Mrs. Thane’s house. Her fine clothes and jewels and other belongings were seized by her husband’s creditors; but she lived so quietly and respectably, and the Wildmans backed her so nobly, that her reputation was restored, in time.”

“Three years since,” I mused, “and she had no word of Curzon Fiske?”

“Not until the report of his death was received,” Fanny concurred. “We learnt the news of James Wildman, when he rode over one pleasant afternoon in April last year—some eighteen months ago, now. A fever, it was said, contracted while Fiske was in the service of the Honourable East India Company—and the body had been buried in Ceylon.”

“And so Mrs. Fiske was released of her onerous wedding vows, put on her mourning-clothes, and after a decent interval, was permitted to re-enter Society.”

“Where, at the age of four-and-twenty, she was so happy as to make the acquaintance of one Captain Andrew MacCallister,” Fanny concluded.

Andrew MacCallister. How much did he know, I wondered, of his wife’s storied past? Or the nature of her first attachment? And what would be his astonishment, upon learning that Curzon Fiske—so far from having released Adelaide to her happy future—had thrown his dark shadow over her vows, and made of her a bigamist?

  
CHAPTER EIGHT
  
 
The Tamarind Seed
 

You must have seen, and more than once, one face

In a crowd, so white, so pale, you knew at the sight

This man was walking to death, and could not escape.…

G
EOFFREY
C
HAUCER,
“T
HE
M
AN OF
L
AW’S
T
ALE

 

21 O
CTOBER
1813,
CONT
.

“J
ANE,” MY BROTHER
E
DWARD CALLED FROM THE
G
REAT
Hall as Fanny and I prepared to descend the stairs, “Dr. Bredloe has finished his examination of the corpse, and is partaking of refreshment in the drawing-room. I should be grateful if you would join us there.”

“I am sure Mr. Wildman has finished writing what must be conveyed to Captain and Mrs. MacCallister,” I murmured to Fanny, “however little he may have relished the task; and there is the Express to be despatched in pursuit of the pair. Pray inform Mr. Wildman, therefore, that he is not to stay for us; we might better pay our respects to his family tomorrow, when the unhappy couple is returned to Chilham Castle.”

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